What to do when doing right gets you in trouble at work
For about 12 years, Blanca Ramirez worked at the Jack in the Box in San Fernando, California as a team leader. She reported to the employer’s anonymous hotline that another manager may be romantically involved with a 17-year old cashier at the restaurant. Ramirez claimed that she was harassed and retaliated against for doing this.
She later sustained a work injury and sought accommodation, which the employer failed to provide. Instead, she claimed that she was subjected to retaliation and forced to work the graveyard shift one night a week. Her boss allegedly mocked her physical condition and called her “grandma” because she moved in a guarded manner to avoid additional injuries. The supervisor also began to reprimand Ramirez and to micro-manage her work.
Additionally, Ramirez reported a supervisor whom she perceived to be engaging in sexual misconduct in the workplace with multiple 16-year old workers. A week after she made this complaint, she was fired.
Ramirez sued the employer for, among other things, wrongful termination, disability discrimination, and retaliation. The employer countered that Ramirez was fired for manipulating the restaurant’s “speed-of-service” system. Customers’ orders are supposed to be served within three to four minutes after they place their orders. Video images showed that Ramirez directed one customer in the drive-thru lane to back up and pull forward to start the service time all over again. Ramirez argued that this reason was a pretext, and that the employer fired her because of her complaints about the managers’ sexual misconduct, and because she asked for accommodation for her injuries.
Here, an employee’s efforts to curb sexual harassment by reporting the perpetrator to management resulted in termination. This conduct on the part of management may be deemed as unlawful retaliation. On a different vein, an employee who asserts his or her rights under the law, such as claiming overtime pay or taking sick leave or asking for reasonable accommodation due to a disability, and who is fired as a result, may also be experiencing unlawful retaliation.
In either of these scenarios – reporting a misconduct or exercising an employment right – the employee may claim that she/he engaged in protected activity. In order to prevail on a retaliation claim, the employee must further prove that:
1) The employer knew that the employee engaged in such protected activity;
2) The employee was suspended, demoted or fired for engaging in the protected activity; and
3) The employee’s protected activity caused the employer to take adverse action, which can be demonstrated by the employer’s negative reaction such as threats or warnings.
Employers generally have the power to terminate employees at will. This means they can terminate the employee for a good reason, or a bad reason, or for no reason at all. However, employers must not be motivated by a discriminatory or retaliatory reason for doing so. If the employer is found to have engaged in retaliation, it may be liable for damages. Employees who were retaliated and wrongfully terminated may recover loss of earnings, emotional distress, and in certain cases, attorneys’ fees and costs, and punitive damages.
After trial, the jury found that the employee was the victim of wrongful termination, retaliation, hostile work environment harassment, and age and disability discrimination. The jury also concluded that the employer failed to accommodate her because of her disability and failed to prevent her from being harassed. The jury awarded the employee $5.39 million in compensatory damages and an additional $10 million in punitive damages.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas in 2018.]